I’m writing from Rotterdam, the Netherlands, where summer has long gone and H1N1 flu poses a very serious threat. The purpose of my stay here is to attend the 4th International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam.
I am not an architect, I’m telling you. I was invited to come as a representative from Mercy Corps. And you might ask, why in the world would a humanitarian organisation be at an architectural event such as this? Let me elaborate.
The theme of this Biennale is the "Open City" — a city that is diverse, lively and socially sustainable, where people can productively relate to each other culturally and socially, as well as economically. Mercy Corps Indonesia has been working in urban areas of Jakarta since 1999, trying to implement a poverty reduction strategy for the urban poor. Over the last few years, we've been especially keen to work on urban management of the largest slum in the city, a place called Penjaringan.
But I’m neither writing to give details about Mercy Corps’ urban management project, nor about our contribution to the Biennale. Not tonight.
Instead, having attended the opening sessions of the Biennale for the last two days, I am realizing that this architectural exhibition is not merely intended for the architects. It is for everyone who cares about the future of the cities.
As unbelievable as it may sound, more than half of the world's population is now living in cities.
That's certainly hard to grasp, so now I will talk on a bit of a smaller scale — yet about a case that's no less extreme. In Indonesia, the country where I come from, 70 percent of the population lives on Java, an island which only make about seven percent of the country's total area. It’s densely-populated, for sure. But one also cannot ignore the fact that Java is the most developed island of all of Indonesia's 17,000 islands. It’s also the place where big cities exist.
Generally speaking, cities have always been seen as something alluring for people living in the countryside, in terms of better economic and social opportunities. They're the place where the money is, the place where “coolness” exists — which is not necessarily true, of course. So people migrate to cities. They choose to live in cities and leave their villages behind.
But this, of course, has spawned problems — from horrific living standards to climate change, from traffic problems to criminality. Cities all over the world often tell tales of waste and neglect. But people keep migrating to cities anyhow. Hence the world needs a new urban agenda.
And what this Biennale has to offer is quite the answer to that growing need.
Here I've learned that the city should be regarded as a living organism. It grows. It evolves. Because it really should, otherwise it will be extinct. So there's this "Open City' prospect, where citizen can direct their own social, spatial and economic betterment. Because every citizen should have the same access to the cities’ many resources and opportunities, regardless of how many digits you have in your bank account, how dark the colour of your skin is or how long you have been staying in school.
In the lobby of the Biennale's exhibition hall, you will find a conceptual model called "Neotopia". Neotopia is the idea of a new world, where the Earth would only consists of one single, enormous urban space and each Earthling possesses the same sized personal plot of land: 279.3 square meters, or a little more than 3,000 square feet. People who visit the exhibition can design their own model of Neotopia by moving and rearranging the magnetic squares which represent things like public spaces and housing. Everyone is also encouraged to take a picture of their finished model and send it to the Biennale committee.
So I guess what the people behind the Biennale are trying to say is this: you don’t need to have a degree in Architecture to be an architect. You only need to be creative. And open minded.
As one of the curators of the Biennale, Ralph Pasel, stated: "The 'Open City' is like a house with a thousand rooms and a million doors. It’s a matter of choice!"
I will keep you posted.